Jueves, 17 Septiembre 2009 20:31

E. Adversarialism and Power

Written by
Rate this item
(0 votes)

The concept of power is one of the most difficult issues when dealing with the nature of society and of the necessary relations among its groups and individuals. When speaking of power, people usually tend to think of it as something that is wielded over or against someone, within relationships of struggle and domination, of competition and conflict. According to this assumption, power is perceived as a scarce resource, so acquiring it requires entering into a power struggle with others who want it. This mental model is so deeply ingrained in today’s society that most people define ‘politics’ as a ‘power struggle’. This shows how completely we have taken in the worldview and culture of division and conflict. Karlberg (2004:23) observes, “In a culture of contest, people tend not only to be preoccupied with relations of power, but tend to think and talk about power as though its exercise is inherently competitive and conflictual”.


Because of this, many have come to doubt the possibility of a harmonious social order. This model of power no longer meets the needs of humanity, if it ever did. Rather, it is a cause of division, conflict and discord, which tend to hamper progress towards our common goals. For example, in most modern democracies, the political scenario is divided into parties that compete for power by accruing a majority of votes, often using questionable means to achieve that. Those who prevail in this electoral contest form the governing regime and attempt to promote certain programs, while the rest make up the ‘opposition’ and do everything they can to frustrate those efforts, once again recurring to methods that are not always very ethical. The upshot is that some push the country in one direction while the others push it in another, which seriously impedes its progress.


This failure of the traditional mental model of power has prompted a search for alternative concepts of power. New social trends such as the culture of peace and sustainable development have also fed into this process. In a proposal submitted to the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995, the Bahá'í International Community stated,

Habits and attitudes related to the use of power which emerged during the long ages of humanity's infancy and adolescence have reached the outer limits of their effectiveness. Today, in an era most of whose pressing problems are global in nature, persistence in the idea that power means advantage for various segments of the human family is profoundly mistaken in theory and of no practical service to the social and economic development of the planet.

Those who still adhere to it––and who could in earlier eras have felt confident in such adherence––now find their plans enmeshed in inexplicable frustrations and hindrances. In its traditional, competitive expression, power is as irrelevant to the needs of humanity's future as would be the technologies of railway locomotion to the task of lifting space satellites into orbits around the earth.

This essay, therefore, seeks to explore some new concepts of power that might be more appropriate to this day and age.


Power as Ability

The term ‘power’ can be divided into at least two different concepts and practices. In some languages, the same word is both a noun and a verb, such as ‘poder’ in Spanish. Other languages use different words for power as a noun and power as a verb. For example, French has the noun ‘puissance’ and the predicate ‘pouvoir’ (Trias 1988:29-30). In English, verb forms for ‘power’ are not as clear-cut, and include ‘can’, ‘may’ and ‘to be able to’. As a noun, ‘power’ tends to suggest exclusiveness, as something that one person or group wields over another. The idea of scarcity inherent in this conception implies that conflict or competition are needed in order to accumulate it. However, when ‘power’ is used as a verb, it suggests the ability to achieve some purpose. This not only allows but actually invites collaboration, since life’s greatest achievements often require a tremendous effort, greater than any one individual can make. As the old saying goes, “there is strength in numbers” or, as Aesop put it, “united we stand, divided we fall”.

Historically, several cooperative types of power have been proposed, especially from a feminist perspective. For example, as early as 1942, Mary Parker Follet suggested changing the notion of power over or against with power to or with, and proposed a ‘coactive’ or non-coercive type of power as the basis for new social and political relations [1942:101]. Eleven years later, this idea gained strength when Dorothy Emmet presented a paper to the Aristotelian Society of London developing this idea [Emmet 1953].

In the late sixties, Hanna Arendt defined power as “the human ability not just to act but to act in concert”. She warned that confusing power with domination results in “a kind of blindness” to our social reality, and that “only after one ceases to reduce public affairs to the business of domination that human affairs will appear, or rather, reappear in their authentic diversity” (Arendt 1969:43-44).

Jean Baker Miller writes that the word ‘power’ has “acquired certain connotations [that] imply certain modes of behavior more typical of men than women,” which have “distorted and skewed” it in order to “maintain an irrational domination” [1976:115]. She says that studying power from a feminist perspective could help to redefine it, since “women have exerted enormous powers in their traditional role of fostering growth in others”. This power consists of the “capacity to produce change” in ways that “simultaneously enhance, rather than diminish, the power of others” [1982:1-2].

Kramarae and Treichler [1992:351] claim that the term ‘power’ has been “conceptualized by men as assertion and aggression, by women as nurturance.” Nancy Hartsock [1983:253], in her review of the “feminist theory of power,” discovers a “stress on power not as domination but as capacity, on power as the capacity the community as a whole.”

Most of the work redefining power has been done by feminist authors, who unfortunately remain marginal to theories of socio-political power. It also has masculine advocates, however. For example, Anthony Giddens defines power as “transformative capacity” or the “the capacity to achieve outcomes”, that is “not necessarily linked to conflict” and is not “inherently oppressive” [1984:15,257].

Two Kinds of Power:

Power over or against

Power to or with

However, as Miller [1982:1] points out, this kind of empowerment has “not been taken into account in most studies of power”, probably because “it does not fit accepted conceptualizations and definitions of power”. Several theorists, while recognizing the existence of power as capacity and distinguishing it from power as domination, do so only to discard the former as irrelevant to serious sociopolitical research. They claim that power over and against is the only one that is valid for politics, defined as a ‘power struggle’, and relegate power to and with to the sphere of the family, humanitarian aid and the civil society.

Karlberg [2004:27-34] responds to this by classifying ‘power over’ as a particular case or subset of ‘power to’ or power as capacity, which is merely “power to exert control over others.” Therefore, what is of interest is what is sought by power, whether to dominate others or to help them. Another instance of ‘power to’ would be the capacity to decide or work together, which Karlberg calls ‘power with’. In this way, all power would be ‘power to’––the capacity to do something––which is divided into two categories: (1) power against, which is the capacity to control or dominate others; and (2) power with, which is when a group of people decides to do something together, working in cooperation to achieve a common goal.

Both types are ‘power to’, but the way people use that power depends on how they understand it and what they wish to achieve. In a culture of conflict, power is used to dominate and control others, usually for selfish reasons. In a culture of peace, however, poweris used to empower others, generate synergies and achieve positive change for the benefit of all. In the first case, the outcomes tend to be zero or negative, because the most powerful win and the rest lose. In the second case, however, the result is always positive, being based on agreements from which everyone wins and nobody loses.

From a relational viewpoint, Karlberg distinguishes two broad categories of “adversarial power relations” (power against) and “mutualistic power relations” (power with), as follows:

Power as Capacity

(power to)

Adversarial Power Relations

(power against)

Mutualistic Power Relations

(power with)


Distribution of Power

When redefining power, another consideration is the distribution of power, which according to the common view is always unequal. However, most analysts recognize the fact that power relations do not necessarily lead to one party dominating another (power over) and the establishment of a vertical hierarchy. See, for example, Blau [1964:118], Gamson [1968] and Reismann et al. [1951).

A balance of power is increasingly observed––which some call ‘incursive power’––in which neither of the parties submits the other, but a relatively balanced or horizontal relationship is maintained. In an adversarial relationship, inequality of power can result in oppression, while equality of power can lead to the kind of standstill which is very common in multi-party democracies.

Accordingly, Karlberg [2004:29] suggests subdividing adversarial power relations into ‘power over’ and ‘balance of power’, as follows:

Adversarial Relations

(power against)

Inequality of power

(power over)

Equality of power

(balance of power)

In the case of mutualistic relations, there can also be a unequal distribution of power. Equality of power makes mutual empowerment possible (e.g., being part of a cooperative), while inequality of power leads to one-way or ‘assisted’ empowerment (e.g., raising a child or educating a student).

However, Karlberg clarifies that “power inequalities can be understood as necessary yet temporary characteristics of these relationships. The ultimate goal of these relationships, when they are healthy, is to nurture and educate the unequal parties until they arrive at a state of relative equality” [2004:30]. Thus, Karlberg proposes the following outline:

Mutualistic Power Relations

(power with)

Equality of power

(mutual empowerment)

Inequality of power

(assisted empowerment)


Rank and Hierarchy

Human beings are usually different in terms of our talents, training, prestige, profession, authority, possessions, family background, etc. In many societies, this leads to the development of different levels and ranks. The resulting asymmetry in social relations, in turn, often gives way to more or less set hierarchies.

In an adversarial culture, major asymmetries can provide higher-ranking members with excessive privileges while the rest lack access to the necessities of a dignified life. The former wield power over and against those of lower rank, and achieve their compliance through coercion instead of including them in joint decision making, thereby maintaining the status quo that grants them those privileges. It also enables abuses of power, such as immunity to the law, legal sanctions and the sociopolitical order. Finally, it tends to create a sense of superiority and arrogance in some and a devaluing and lack of recognition for others, which exacerbates the differences and corrupts social relations.

Observing this, many social scientist conclude that inequality of rank necessarily constitutes a source of conflict and social division. Some ideologies, therefore, propose eliminating these differences entirely. Many even automatically assume mutualism to be synonymous with anarchy. Others, however, claim that this would be impossible, as illustrated in nature, where all living beings have different capacities and powers. They say that absolute equality of rank is a chimera, and that even if it were attainable, it would be artificial and imposed and, therefore, unsustainable. As an example, they cite the relative income equality imposed in the Soviet Union, which in time ended in economic paralysis. They propose designing measures to preserve the benefits of moderate differentiation and strengthen its role as a promoter of social unity and progress while avoiding the pitfalls of injustice and division.

Under a mutualistic perspective, ranks and hierarchies offer other features that can be used to the benefit of all. Good social organization requires differentiated functions, some of which will carry a certain degree of ‘normative authority’, understood as the ability to make decisions that others should follow. The hierarchy arising from this inequality of authority is found in relationships of structural dependency, such as delegating duties to persons who in all other respects are equal, and can enable groups to scale heights that would otherwise be unattainable. Furthermore, when higher ranks are attained through effort and achievement, it tends to motivate persons of capacity to develop their talents in service to collective wellbeing. The position that society grants them enhances their ‘moral authority’, i.e., the weight of their opinions in their field, which increases their chances to have a positive influence on the world.

In a mutualistic culture, therefore, people do not envy those of rank, but rather grant them the respect their achievements deserve and feel inspired to follow their example of endeavor and dedication to the common good. People of all ranks see their role as one of service to the common good; and a higher position means new opportunities to serve. Any intent to ascend using less dignified means is seen with suspicion, discouraged and even penalized, as it would be a source of division and conflict, oppression and injustice.

It means inverting the pyramid of power: those at the peak have arrived there due to their capacity to support the weight of the rest of the structure. In all other things, they are considered to have the same dignity and worth as any other human being, and even their servants. The truly wise have the humility that comes with realizing how little they know and how much they have to learn from those around them, including children and the illiterate. As a consequence, they consult broadly with others and include them in the decision-making process. Persons of true virtue are able to see the good in others, beyond their faults, and to concentrate on correcting their own weaknesses.


Overcoming Domination

One of the reasons attention is concentrated on ‘power over’ and not on ‘power with’ is the assumption of ubiquitous relationships of domination–submission. Eloy Anello (1983:131-3) explains the reasoning used to justify such interactions. Available resources are scarce, so conflict over their distribution is inevitable. At the same time, there are irreconcilable differences among diverse groups, so their interests will always be in conflict. Resolving these conflicts will always require that some dominate others. Therefore, it is all right to use power to impose one’s own will on other individuals or groups. No matter who wins or loses, the vicious cycle of the struggle for power will continue. Those who work for social justice tend to perpetuate this struggle when they believe it is the only alternative.

Given this situation, Anello and his collaborators worked for decades with various social segments to establish lasting relationships based on a systemic approach that acknowledges a unity in diversity of functions, contributions and identities based on shared principles. It cultivates structures of interconnection and interdependence among equals, where “the well being of each part benefits the whole, just as the well being of the whole benefits each of its parts.” It promotes an ethos of mutual service and reciprocity as a manifestation of power and a source of fulfillment and growth for those who serve. It promotes a legitimate use of power for the benefit of all, granted through legal structures that are accepted and supported by society, instead of coercive power in which one person or group arbitrarily imposes its will on others. In this respect, Anello says:

In practical terms, this means that different persons or groups will have greater power or influence regarding different parts of each process, depending on how their knowledge and abilities relate to the needs of the whole. It is always necessary to seek balance; rarely is it advisable for a single person to control everything. [¿REF?]

To transform relations of domination–submission, they propose a systemic approach that requires the collaboration of all those involved in such relations. They recommend different strategies depending on the role from which the initiative is taken, whether as a facilitator, an authority or a dominated party. From the role of a facilitator, they recommend first working on one’s own mental models, in preparation to be able to train other stakeholders to do the same in an environment of security and acceptance. From a role of authority, it is important not only to change one’s own models of thought and action, and offer others greater opportunities, but also to “explain the new ‘rules of the game’ to subordinates and guide them in acquiring the capacities needed to gradually take on greater responsibilities.”

From the position of a dominated party, it is harder to achieve change because of the lack of power in the traditional sense of the word. We recommend using four non-violent procedures based on alternative conflict resolution. The first is to base oneself on principles, acting and responding as if there already were a relationship of interconnection, reciprocity and mutual service, and insisting on the right to participate and to share one’s own viewpoints clearly. The second is to separate the person from the problem by addressing any criticism towards the person's behavior or attitudes and not towards their value as a human being, but rather emphasizing their qualities and ability to change. The third is to identify the needs and wishes of both parties, instead of getting locked into positions. The fourth is to be creative in the search for alternative solutions.


Relational Analysis of Power

Based on the above, we could draw a graph with four quadrants to analyze the relationships of power and how to reorganize them in order to align them with the mutuality principle. This does not mean that no adversarial relationships can be accepted. Two parties in a business dispute should of course have the same ability to submit their arguments during a mediation. A serial killer, on the other hand, should be subject to a higher power in order to ensure the security of society.

Readers are invited to go through the exercise of placing the different relationships in the graph. For example, in education, a teacher who is authoritarian, impatient and know-it-all, who shames and abuses the students instead of empowering their latent capacities, would be in quadrant C.1, while a loving, patient, empowering teacher would be in C.3.

A conscientious tutor will take the role of facilitator (C.3) or co-learner (C.4), while an instructor who takes the role of an expert or preacher would tend more towards the vertical relationships of C.1.

Paternalism consists of ‘helping’ dependents from a position of ostentatious superiority in a way that perpetuates that dependency and places the effort in quadrant C.1. It should be replaced with an attitude of empowerment, i.e., challenging others to develop their own capacities in order to achieve independence.

Even in physical education and recreation, competitive games that deepen the culture of conflict and contest belong in C.1, while cooperative games that foster an attitude of mutual support and team work are in C.4.

In families, physical, verbal and psychological abuse of children (C.1) should be transformed into firm yet loving nurturing (C.3). However, the current tendency to do away with all parental authority (C.4), making each parent just another friend of their children, lacking of the prerogative to expect obedience when obedience is due, should be exchanged for a healthy family hierarchy in C.3, where parents have authority but do not abuse it for selfish purposes (C.1).

In the relationship among spouses, masculine domination (C.1) should be replaced with equality between men and women (C.4), with the decisions that affect the family being made through mutual consultation. In some cases, men may take the role of empowering women (C.3) until they are able to take on their true role in society.

In public administration, the electoral method of naming candidates who complete for votes would be in C.1, since one always wins and the others lose. However, truly open elections, where all are candidates and the position to be filled is seen as just another opportunity to serve society, would be in C.4.

Decision making through the struggle to impose mutually exclusive positions would be in C.1 or C.2, while mutual consultation would occur in quadrant C.4. The relationship between an institution and the group that has invested it with authority would be C.1 if the former proceeds in a dominating, overbearing way, C.2 if it receives active or passive resistance from the people, C.3 if it takes its authority responsibly as a function delegated to it by the group, and C.4 if it consults broadly and openly with the community before and after coming to a decision.

Board chairpersons whose opinions cannot be contradicted by other members and who wield the power of the casting or decisive vote could be located in C.1, while those who see themselves as mere coordinators or moderators of the group consultation and contribute their ideas and votes in equal conditions with the rest would be in C.4.















  • Education
  • Nurturing
  • Assistance
  • Win / (win)







  • Synergy
  • Collaboration
  • Coordination
  • Win / win

















  • Coercion
  • Domination
  • Oppression
  • Win / lose




Balance of



  • Stalemate
  • Compromise
  • Frustration
  • Lose / lose



We have seen that the concepts of power as capacity, its differential distribution and relational analysis can contribute to redefining power within a paradigm of collaboration and mutual support. However, we will have to deepen our understanding of them further to build the kind of society we want.

True power is not that which is taken but given, not the power to destroy but to build, not the power to exploit but to nurture, not the power to conquer but to cultivate, not the power to hate but to love. It is a power that does not corrupt, but that imbues everything it touches with new life. In this regard, Farzam Arbab [2000:162] holds that Western civilization has forgotten the “many powers of the human spirit” such as the power of unity, the power of service to our collective well being, the power of noble acts, the power of love, and the power of truth. In the words of the Bahá'í International Community [1995]:

…humanity has always been able to conceive of power in other forms critical to its hopes. History provides ample evidence that, however intermittently and ineptly, people of every background, throughout the ages, have tapped a wide range of creative resources within themselves. The most obvious example, perhaps, has been the power of truth itself, an agent of change associated with some of the greatest advances in the philosophical, religious, artistic, and scientific experience of the race. Force of character represents yet another means of mobilizing immense human response, as does the influence of example, whether in the lives of individual human beings or in human societies. Almost wholly unappreciated is the magnitude of the force that will be generated by the achievement of unity, an influence "so powerful," in Bahá'u'lláh's words, "that it can illuminate the whole Earth."



See the complete references in the Bibliography in the Appendix to this study.

Read 8787 times Last modified on Lunes, 14 Julio 2014 13:57
Login to post comments